What a Taoist Sage Can Teach Us About Finding Love

Mark D. White explains “wei wu wei”. It’s action through inaction, but, don’t worry. It’s definitely not wimpy.

Do nondoing, strive for nonstriving.

Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching (translation by Thomas Cleary)

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I first read Lao Tzu’s classic Tao Te Ching during my senior year in college, and I’ve reread it many times since (as well as the works of Chuang-Tzu and other Taoist scholars). One of the most valuable lessons that I took from it was the principle of wei wu wei, or action through inaction. This principle can be understood many ways; here I share only my own interpretation, which has proven invaluable to me throughout my life.

Let me assure you that wei wu wei isn’t about giving up or giving in, and it isn’t about being passive or “wimpy.” It’s about being smart. To me, wei wu wei is simply about knowing when effort is appropriate and when it’s wasted. As I understand it, it’s also a lot like Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” What wei wu wei adds to this is the realization that even things that we think are in our control actually aren’t.

Obviously, wei wu wei doesn’t apply to things that you must exert effort to do: reports don’t write themselves, garages don’t clean themselves, and babies don’t burp themselves. But there are some valuable things in life that cannot be achieved by simply trying harder—and what’s more, efforts to achieve them can often be self-defeating, like planning to be spontaneous or not thinking of a green elephant. Such things are often the indirect results of our deliberate action. For example, you don’t “try” to be happy—you do things that make you happy, and happiness is the result.

The same principle applies to love, only in a more complex way. Most people would agree that you can’t “try” or will yourself to love someone (at least not in an ideal, romantic sense), but I would argue also that there are limits to “trying” to find someone to love. Consider the following two ways to start a relationship: one, you seek out a woman you get along with and try to love her (and to make her love you), or two, you happen to meet a woman, and over time you discover that you get along and have a lot in common, and gradually you fall in love. I’ve experienced both, and believe me, the second is freakin’ amazing; it happens when you least expect it, and sometimes when you need it the most (whether you know it or not).

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How can you find love according to wei weu wei? Here are a few tips:

1. Be yourself (duh) The principle of wei wu wei certainly supports one common, yet often difficult to follow, piece of dating advice: be yourself. Ironically, the more we’re interested in a woman, the harder we often try to be someone other than ourselves in an effort to impress her. It’s easy to act naturally when nothing’s at stake, but when it seems that prospects are good, we think we have to “do” something to help that happen—and that’s where wei wu wei comes in. It reminds us that such effort is counterproductive due to the fact that it’s focused on concealing your true self. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from movies, it’s that if you disguise your true nature upfront, it will only be that much harder to reveal it later on (after the obligatory “I have something to tell you” scene).

This also provides a good response to the question, “what do women want?” That’s the wrong question, and just by asking it, you’re setting yourself up to suppress your own needs and desires in order to fulfill someone else’s. You want to find someone that likes you for who you are, not because you’re trying to be someone you think she wants you to be. There’s nothing wrong with trying to make someone else happy, of course, but it should never be done at the expense of your own needs, and especially not at the expense of your own identity (as I discuss here). Ideally you want to find someone that fits with who you are, and you have to trust that anyone you meet wants that, too. But a good fit can’t be found if you’re not being yourself to begin with, which doesn’t do you or the other person any favors.

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2. Forget about “types” Flip that last point around, and we get a more novel application of wei wu wei to dating: forget the “types” of women you think you want to date. Determining what your type is may seem like a good way to screen potential dates, such as when you’re constructing an online dating profile. But as Emily Moss wrote in an article on online dating here at The Good Men Project, “One might wonder if you actually know your own ‘type’ as well as you think you do.” Actually, psychological research on the adaptive unconscious mind suggests that you don’t; your behavior, as seen in the women you get on with better than others, may be a better guide to your “type” than your conscious beliefs about it. (According to this article, Match.com actually does this to some extent, offering people that fit your past selections rather than your stated preferences.) How often have you heard your blissed-out friend say that his wife or girlfriend is “totally not my type, but she’s perfect for me!”

In the spirit of wei wu wei, don’t focus on what (you think) your type is or isn’t: if you meet a woman who seems nice, that you find attractive (without thinking about it too much), and that you can talk to, see where it goes—what have you got to lose? You might find out that what you thought was “your type” wasn’t and vice versa, or that “your type” is as simple as “women you get on with.” (And when you get down to it, isn’t that really all that matters?)

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3. Ditch the online dating The last point above suggests a problem with online dating seen from the approach of wei wu wei (at least my interpretation of it): while online dating can be a fantastic tool for meeting new women, it seems that it excessively narrows down the pool of women you’re likely to meet. In addition to the various selection algorithms they use (again, see here), I think that introducing some randomization to the women sites recommend to you would be healthy. Rather than giving you a list of women specifically tailored to your selected preferences (or those revealed through behavior), it might introduce you to a person you may never have thought of as a potential date but nonetheless may be surprised by.

Of course, there are some things that you can safely know you definitely do not want in a woman: some people won’t date a smoker, for instance, and someone allergic to cats definitely doesn’t want to meet a cat owner. But it’s harder to be sure that you won’t like a woman just because she is a fan of the “wrong” sport, the “wrong” music, or Twilight (which is “wrong” in so many ways). And it’s just as hard to be sure that you have a better chance of liking someone because they share any of these interests with you; common interests are great, of course, helping a couple enjoy shared activities and conversations, but they’re not everything, and you may find that you have an amazing connection with someone with completely different interests from yours.

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If you want to use the principle of wei wu wei in your search for love, be yourself and be open to the wide range of women you meet in places you like to be. If you’re a book lover, you should find a woman that likes that you’re a book lover, and is probably a book lover herself. So hang out at bookstores, libraries, or readings. Same thing if you’re a jazz fan: hang out at jazz record stores (what few there are left) or go see some live jazz (please). (Just don’t try to chat someone up during the show—that’s just rude.) In general, go to places where you’re comfortable being yourself, and you’ll be more likely to find women who are comfortable there too, and would also likely be comfortable with you—the real you.

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This article was adapted from a series of posts on my Psychology Today blog on the topic of wei wu wei and relationships:

The Wisdom of Wei Wu Wei: Letting Good Things Happen

How Much Work Should You Put into Your Relationship?

The Serenity of Wei Wu Wei

What Dating Advice Can We Get from Wei Wu Wei?

Who Cares What Women (or Men) Want—What Do You Want?

Photo athomeinscottsdale/Flickr

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About Mark D White

Mark D. White is a professor in the Department of Political Science, Economics, and Philosophy at the College of Staten Island/CUNY, where he teaches courses in economics, philosophy, and law. He has written and edited a number of scholarly and popular books, and blogs at Psychology Today, Economics and Ethics, and The Comics Professor.

Comments

  1. I’m enjoying all your posts! I agree about types and about online dating. Online dating hasn’t worked for me at all so I disabled/deleted my profiles and subscriptions. I was receiving an increasing number of lewd and canned messages. When I did sort of make a connection online it was usually (not always) up to me to make an in-person meeting happen. I felt like I ended up doing all the work and not getting much sense of who the guy really was in the process. I did finally make a connection and meet a guy I really sparked with. I was just fascinated by him despite him not necessarily being “my usual type.” I felt so comfortable around him and we had the best dates. He seemed to be really into me too, but when I brought up the issue of exclusivity (which was very nerve-wracking to do) he seemed offended and freaked out that I would want that “so soon”. He did not want to cease exploring his other options even after we became physical. I told him I could not see him anymore under those conditions; he became defensive and accustory. It was extremely disappointing and I still think about him daily. Regarding types: He never went to college and is 5’6″. I’m in a Master’s program and am 5’9″. I don’t share his main hobby (cycling), which I think bothered him, but I would have supported him from the sidelines. I think he was worried that he didn’t share some of my hobbies (dancing, cooking) but I didn’t mind – I don’t want my mate to be a carbon copy of me, and I need something to do when he’s out doing his thing!

  2. I enjoyed reading your article; however, I do not agree with the “ditch the online dating” part. I must admit, I am completely biased, because I met the man I’m going to marry soon online. I’m not sure that I saw his profile and thought anything about his interests or my “type” though. His profile was fine enough, but it was when we started talking through email, on the phone, and finally met in person that I knew I had met my other half. We were both happy, successful people who had so much fun together, and that’s what bonded us. Looking back, I can’t remember a single interest that he had listed on his profile, and when we started talking about our likes/dislikes, we just laughed about the things we liked that were viewed as “wrong” to the other. Bottom line is, online dating actually expanded the pool of men I would have ever met in real life, because my partner lived 300 miles away at the time, and he works in a completely different field than I do–chances are slim to none that we would have ever crossed paths. I’m not saying online dating will work for everyone, but I think according to wei wu wei, it might be something to open yourself up to as another location where you could potentially find love (in addition to all the “in person” locales). After all, in 20 years, will you care how you met, or that you met at all?

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